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What To Do When Asked to Work For Free

Surprise, surprise – a trade union talking about fair pay for Young Workers’ Month. But it is a truth (probably) universally acknowledged that musicians will be asked to work for nothing. So what should you do when asked to work for free?

Published: 23 November 2017 | 12:00 AM Updated: 28 April 2021 | 4:29 PM
young man sitting at a piano

It’s an important part of what we do. But our Work Not Play campaign is a little bit different. We’re not starting from a position of boosting your wage, or negotiating a fairer fee in a collective bargaining agreement (more on those another time). We’re starting from zero and trying to get you a fair fee.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that musicians will be asked to work for nothing.

It’s fair to say many engagers – booking a band for their wedding, village fete, festival, venue or someone looking for free music lessons – don’t realise what they are asking for.

They are forgetting years of training, years of practicing, years of honing your craft, gigs played for expenses or to get ‘experience’ for your CV. Add to that buying an instrument (often more than one), instrument care and other costs. Then there’s the event specific stuff: putting the band together, rehearsing, creating a set list, learning any requests, travel time, expenses and perhaps even childcare costs.

But every working musician – be they 13, 30 or 103 – should be paid for their work.

That’s why we started the Work Not Play campaign. We are fighting against the commonly held view that musicians should work for free (and what’s more, be grateful for it).

Event organisers wouldn’t ask the caterers to work for free. They wouldn’t ask bar staff. So how can they justify asking you?

The most common excuses we hear are “it’s for charity” and “it’s good exposure”. Well, if it’s for charity then it should be up to you how much you donate. And it’s only “good exposure” if it will truly help your career. Will it lead to more work? Will it give you the line on your CV you need to get the job you want?  Will it significantly boost your fanbase? Is there someone in the audience guaranteed to be able to take your career to the next level; producers; record labels; real opinion leaders?

So what should you do when asked to work for free?

  • Call the organisers out on it. Ask for a fee – it works surprisingly often.
  • If the engager doesn’t budge, tell them about Work Not Play. Show them testimonials from fellow musicians. Talk to them about what performing for free really means for you, and your industry.
  • Let us know. Your MU Regional Office can help you work out a fair fee as well as give advice on negotiating a deal, what to get in writing, and how to go about it.

And if you don’t feel confident calling the engager out, we can always do it for you anonymously.

When you have the power of the Union behind you, it’s the power of 30,000 musicians acting together. Let’s use it to end exploitation and make fair pay a reality for everyone working in our industry.

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Being a musician is not a hobby - it's our profession

No-one should feel guilty about turning down unpaid “opportunities".

Being a musician is not a hobby - it's our profession